THE MATTER OF SYLVIE by Lee Kvern
“This Wednesday has been building to since seven this morning, Jacqueline thinks, since Sylvie was first born.”
Review by Betsey Van Horn (SEP 6, 2010)
From Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and just recently, Jennifer Vanderbes’ Strangers at the Feast, unhappy families have been a staple of literature all over the globe. What, or who, put the “y” in unhappy, in dysfunction? Canadian author Lee Kvern mines this question with a brutally honest sensitivity in her intimate family portrait of Lloyd and Jacqueline Burrows and their three children–”four, if you count Sylvie.”
In short, enigmatic, alternating chapters, over three decisive Wednesdays in three successive decades, the story of the Burrows family is teased out with measured restraint from its blistering beginnings to its nuanced conclusion. Three days of narratives gradually unite–Jacqueline in 1961, Lloyd in 1973, and Lesa, their oldest daughter, in 1987–and the years between them melt away and form a cohesive, lucent whole.
In the punishing prairie landscape of Red Deer, in Calgary, Jacqueline Burrows lives with her philandering husband, Lloyd, and their three small children, in a small and indistinct row house next to other RCMP wives, aka “the abandoned wives.” Lloyd is on the night shift of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and is rarely home. In 1961, Jacqueline is pregnant and exhausted, her maternal eyes on Lesa, Nate, and Sylvie, as they frolic bantam through the street. A devoted and sensible mother, she nevertheless relies on five-year-old Lesa as her bulwark to keep Sylvie close.
Sylvie was born asphyxiated, the cord wrapped around her neck. She was left with severe mental challenges and suffers from grand mal seizures. Jacqueline loves her fiercely but is overcome with guilt.
On this hot July Wednesday, Jacqueline sees Sylvie (from the kitchen window) start to climb in a strange man’s car. She intervenes and saves her with a scream, blames Lesa for failing to protect her, and subsequently chides herself. To make matters worse, the RCMP can’t find her husband when she calls for help.
“She thinks about her husband…in the arms, the bed of some other woman. Another other. And…while she no longer wants her husband–whether by God or by the sheer luminosity of their children, she needs him. The two are twisted up like electrical wires, complicated and live.”
Flash forward to February, 1973, and Corporal Lloyd’s narrative. His shift has ended, but he is embroiled in rescuing Jimmy Widman, the town drunk, who has been beaten senselessly and left frozen in the snow. Jimmy has had countless drunk-and-disorderly troubles, and no authority wants to help him anymore. But the taciturn corporal overextends himself and risks his job to help him.
Ironically, Lloyd recoils from home life and is often absent during family crises. Early in the marriage, he was Dudley-Do-Right to Jacqueline’s Nell, but the moniker has faded along with his vows; the matter of Sylvie has eroded his love.
“He sits in his cruiser, motor idling, glances down Main Street–his street, his town…farmers, ranchers, one doctor, one vet…one drive-in theater…one wife, three–no, four children, if he counts Sylvie, but he seldom does. The cruel, imperfect line across her small lips, her dark eyes glimmering like Lloyd’s, like the blonde’s in the bar last night…”
The connection of Jimmy’s destiny to the Burrows’ fate is disclosed through the drama of his story. Lloyd hauls a bundled-up Widman through hoops in a cat-and mouse chase to save Widman’s life and perhaps his own soul.
Lesa’s Wednesday of 1987 begins with a plane ride home to visit her mother in Red Deer. She’s a wreck, an adolescent at thirty-one. She flirts shamelessly but silently with a stranger at the airport, hoping to–she doesn’t know what. Her live-in boyfriend is home in Vancouver, but she’s terrified of emotional intimacy. She has dyed her firebrand red hair to the inky black of Sylvie’s, her agenda unknown.
Moreover, she is parading around in a super-hero costume with spiked pleather boots and a tawdry wig. (Her excuse–it is almost Halloween) Her brother, Nate, doesn’t recognize her at the baggage claim. When they get to Red Deer, her courage takes a flying leap. She deposits Nate at Jacqueline’s door and goes on an adventure in her Storm costume and cape that is poised to either sabotage or awaken her life.
“She wishes she were a kid again. That brief period of time when no matter what, all is forgiven; everything slips away like silk to skin, smoke to air, a magician’s trick performed by her mother…She knows the trick of the dysfunctional family all too well in that it leaves you lacking, looking for something that doesn’t exist.”
This isn’t a sentimental story about caring for Sylvie, a child with special needs. It is about a family’s catalyst to a long, uncertain truth. Sylvie, at age four, was that catalyst, on a particular thorny day when Murphy’s Law and Wednesdays became destiny. In elegiac and spare prose, Kvern brings the reader from the oblique to the sublime, from the edges of the family to the heart of the matter…of Sylvie.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 1 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Brindle & Glass; 1st edition (September 5, 2010)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Lee Kvern|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver